The exit of Jitin Prasada from the Congress instructs the old party to take the initiative and split to save itself. Prasada joins Jyotiraditya Scindia, scion of an erstwhile royal house, who a year ago too left the Congress to join the family of Hindutva. Both should be congratulated for coming clean and joining the Bharatiya Janata Party. They have shown the path to other individuals, family firms and even larger factions within the Indian National Congress.
Hindutva remains the defining division of India today and each political actor, especially within the Congress fold, needs to be entirely honest on this potent question.
The latest exit offers the perfect opportunity to the abandoned Congress party to clearly set out its stall on Hindutva. Flirting with varying shades of Hindu nationalism, as the Congress is prone to doing, will only strengthen the BJP. The Congress must split in order to weaken the BJP.
Confusing directions or age of extremism
A rethinking and clarity on direction or the Left and Right and even the complacent centre of politics is essential to the survival of the Congress. In varying degrees, Prime Minister Modi has captured and shaped the entire political spectrum causing directional confusion and even an identity crisis for the Opposition. In shedding its flab and sloth, the Congress needs to abandon old ways of imagining political positioning.
Associated with the Right, Hindutva and Hindu nationalism, has always been more than any ordinary force of conservatism. Chauvinism and violent identity-staging of its Hindu-first politics made the BJP a national party via the Mandir movement. Hindutva under Modi now has welded itself to the new millennium’s global fixation on populism. Populism, with its close association with ‘the people’, has of late swung popular democracies across the world. Populism forges through by causing a wedge in well drawn-out lines and directions of the Left and the Right. An obvious example would be the big spending on public goods by conservative or Right-wing governments, a policy direction that is normally associated with Left-leaning or socialist parties.
Occupying the so-called ‘centre’, populist regimes deploy the damaging canard that any opposition to it comes from the Left and by extension, is out of place and time, or simply outdated and well past its sell-by date. Modi has aced all the populist tricks: big personality, targeted big spending on public goods and an effective campaign that renders Congress as a spent force or a party from the bad old days of socialist India that only the well-heeled can truly afford to align with. Just as White supremacy was the base for a populist like Donald Trump, it is Hindutva that truly gives Modi’s populism any teeth. Rather than Left or Right, or even populism, India is witnessing the complete capture of the centre or of all institutional power by forces of extremism. The name of extremism is Hindutva.
The immobilising confusion of directions of Left or Right surely must be replaced with the clear reckoning of extremism that is stalking the Indian political landscape. Hindutva’s extremism, combined with its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, blinds the vision as it effectively misdirects the opposition.
A new wave of defections from India’s oldest party, nevertheless, points to a historic role reversal. The BJP now has to deal with ex-Congress leaders who either out of conviction, self-interest, or the need for personal power feel attracted to it. A hundred years ago, members of the BJP’s predecessor the Hindu Mahasabha, whether it was K.M. Munshi or Madan Mohan Malaviya, pursued their political careers within the broad tent that the Congress had become. Scale afforded compromise and, arguably, made the Congress ideologically unclear.
In the Nehru years, despite a socialist mien, Congress conservatives held sway on the big-ticket reforms, notably the Hindu Code Bill and the still-born Zamindari abolition bills. Given the extreme ideology, it is unlikely that a Scindia or a Prasada will have any moderating influence on the BJP’s Hindutva-driven agenda. As it stands, there is only one party that is fully associated with Hindutva, namely the BJP, now that the Shiv Sena has ostensibly taken a pragmatic approach to power. By contrast, there are 50-odd parties that have not signed up to Hindutva. The Congress may have only a handful of MPs but barring the BJP, it is the only party with a considerable voter base in several states and has a total share of over a third of all MLAs in the country.
Split and save
The Congress today, though spread across the nation, is not a big tent of power. There can be no compromise, not only because there is very little to bargain within the Congress fold but primarily because the edge of extreme Hindutva cannot be moderated. The Congress needs to become leaner and meaner in its ideological stance with a piercing clarity. To do so, it will, in the first instance, need to renounce its now revived habits honed first in the Rajiv Gandhi era and finessed under Narasimha Rao — of flirting with and conveying a ‘softer’ and ‘milder’ version of Hindu nationalism. These only allowed for the BJP to become a national party. It was the worst kind of pragmatism as it has proved to be entirely pyrrhic.
Second, the Congress needs to aggressively posit India’s multi-culturalism in a new powerful vocabulary and campaign. Secularism may have become ‘sickularism’, but the lessons of friendship of fraternity across religions must be conveyed in a language distinct from Nehruvian niceties and mounted as urgent and central to India’s survival. In reviving its Gandhian legacy, Hindutva extremism should be identified as the only political issue. It is neither Left, Right nor indeed the Centre or even Modi that is at stake.
Finally, factional conflict between generations or otherwise, the group-23 and the rest should be recognised as mind-numbing distractions. Holding on and sending emissaries to conflict-ridden party units is a displacement activity that neither behoves a politics of conviction nor the pursuit of power. In fact, the door should be held wide open to those who want to leave out of personal ambition or otherwise politically unconvinced of the reality of multi-cultural India.
The ability to decide, then prosecute that decision to split, even at the cost of a dilution of some numbers in Parliament or legislatures, will alone guarantee the remaking of the Congress and any possible return to power.
Time is running out. A new nationhood is being actively fashioned. In 2025, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will celebrate 100 years of existence. The Modi government’s prioritising of the Central Vista project over the brutalising deaths and devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic in India must be firmly placed within this imminent centenary. As the oldest organisation of the Hindutva family, this potent but largely fringe force over most of its long life became a mainstream political force only with Modi. Crucial new legislations together with a new architectural symbolism seek to anoint and make Hindutva synonymous with India.
This is why the leader who has the courage to split the Congress now on the question of Hindutva alone will be its true leader.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
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